From the 1995 letter I have picked extracts of wisdom related to the following topics: the advantage of being bisexual; selling a limping horse; Drucker on deals; Buffett on retailing and the three items of company profitability.
Please comment if you have read the letter and what you thought of it. Also, if you have found a worldly wisdom in the letter that you think I should have included please comment on that as well. I’m very interested in what caught your eye while reading and why.
Worldly wisdom’s from Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Letter – 1995
Charlie Munger, Berkshire’s Vice Chairman and my partner, and I want to build a collection of companies – both wholly- and partly-owned – that have excellent economic characteristics and that are run by outstanding managers. Our favorite acquisition is the negotiated transaction that allows us to purchase 100% of such a business at a fair price. But we are almost as happy when the stock market offers us the chance to buy a modest percentage of an outstanding business at a pro-rata price well below what it would take to buy 100%. This double-barrelled approach -purchases of entire businesses through negotiation or purchases of part-interests through the stock market – gives us an important advantage over capital-allocators who stick to a single course. Woody Allen once explained why eclecticism works: “The real advantage of being bisexual is that it doubles your chances for a date on Saturday night.””
“In any case, why potential buyers even look at projections prepared by sellers baffles me. Charlie and I never give them a glance, but instead keep in mind the story of the man with an ailing horse. Visiting the vet, he said: “Can you help me? Sometimes my horse walks just fine and sometimes he limps.” The vet’s reply was pointed: “No problem – when he’s walking fine, sell him.” In the world of mergers and acquisitions, that horse would be peddled as Secretariat.
At Berkshire, we have all the difficulties in perceiving the future that other acquisition minded companies do. Like they also, we face the inherent problem that the seller of a business practically always knows far more about it than the buyer and also picks the time of sale – a time when the business is likely to be walking “just fine.””
“Talking to Time Magazine a few years back, Peter Drucker got to the heart of things: “I will tell you a secret: Dealmaking beats working. Dealmaking is exciting and fun, and working is grubby. Running anything is primarily an enormous amount of grubby detail work . . . dealmaking is romantic, sexy. That’s why you have deals that make no sense.”
“Retailing is a tough business. During my investment career, I have watched a large number of retailers enjoy terrific growth and superb returns on equity for a period, and then suddenly nosedive, often all the way into bankruptcy. This shooting-star phenomenon is far more common in retailing than it is in manufacturing or service businesses. In part, this is because a retailer must stay smart, day after day. Your competitor is always copying and then topping whatever you do. Shoppers are meanwhile beckoned in every conceivable way to try a stream of new merchants. In retailing, to coast is to fail.
In contrast to this have-to-be-smart-every-day business, there is what I call the have-to-be-smart-once business. For example, if you were smart enough to buy a network TV station very early in the game, you could put in a shiftless and backward nephew to run things, and the business would still do well for decades. You’d do far better, of course, if you put in Tom Murphy, but you could stay comfortably in the black without him. For a retailer, hiring that nephew would be an express ticket to bankruptcy.”
“Any company’s level of profitability is determined by three items: (1) what its assets earn; (2) what its liabilities cost; and (3) its utilization of “leverage” – that is, the degree to which its assets are funded by liabilities rather than by equity.”